How to Prioritize Your Workload When Everything’s a “Priority”

These approaches are better for your productivity and your well-being.

Courtesy of TanyaJoy / Getty Images
Courtesy of TanyaJoy / Getty Images

If looking at your to-do list is making your head spin, you’re in good company. “Companies are trying to make do with less, so there is more work to do than there is time to do it,” Julie Morgenstern, the author of Never Check E-Mail in the Morning, told the Harvard Business Review. Employees today wear many hats, and whether you work in a corporate setting or a start-up, it can seem like every project is labeled high-priority.

So how are we to prioritize when everything is a priority? Use these three strategies to help you figure out where to start, when to pivot, and how to stay nimble in the midst of frequent shifts in direction.

Start the day by listing your priorities

Just as Marie Kondo has her clients to empty their closets and lay their entire wardrobe out in plain sight, in the morning, write down your priorities for the day. Deciding what’s important and what’s not is key to reducing stress and improving productivity. Use this fresh vantage point to center yourself before diving in.

Toggle between energizing and draining tasks

We all have aspects of our jobs we find stimulating — and on the flipside, ones that feel draining. It’s not hard to stay focused on work we genuinely enjoy, but work we find draining depletes our attention and emotional energy reserves.

One helpful method for distinguishing between the two is the Eisenhower Matrix. Named after former President Eisenhower, its four categories of task organization involve two emotionally distinct labels: urgent and important.

  • Urgent/Important: Stimulating, short turnaround. These are aspects of your job you look forward to most and can focus on easily.
  • Urgent/Not Important: Draining, short turnaround. Emails, requests, processes that are timely but don’t really move the needle on the wider project.
  • Important/Not Urgent: Stimulating, longer term projects that are valuable for your career growth and personal development. Spend a little time on these daily or weekly to refocus your attention and recharge your emotional reserves.
  • Not Important/Not Urgent: Draining tasks that need to get done eventually, but you never seem in the mood to get them out of the way. Fun fact: 30 percent of emails you receive on the average workday falls into this category, according to a 2017 survey from Carleton University in Ottawa, Canada.

Sorting your deliverables by “urgency” and “importance” tunes you into your own emotional resources, which can help you keep tabs on your output before you reach the point of exhaustion, or worse, burnout.

Identify one low-priority activity — and stop doing it

Eliminating a single item from your to-do list, or delegating it to a colleague for whom the activity makes much more sense, can help your to-do list feel a whole lot lighter — and perhaps even spark joy! Pick something that’s superfluous, redundant, or no longer necessary. Then scratch it off your list for good, or bring it to your manager’s attention as an opportunity to improve operational efficiency.

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